Terence Thompson and Katie Kenney are in-house creative services managers who utilize Aquent resources. Terence, who has specialized in consumer packaging for over 25 years and is an Aquent contractor himself, is a studio manager of internal design resources at Colgate. In addition to creative supervision, he is responsible for the intake of all new projects, billing estimates, and hiring. Katie, who has close to 25 years of experience in print design and branding, is one of 10 studio managers at the in-house studio of Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Her specific team of designers is responsible for the overall look and brand of individual pharmaceutical drugs during their clinical trials phase.
Running an in-house creative services function can be uniquely challenging for several reasons, but the most pressing is this: You’ve got to provide creative solutions and customer service at levels comparable to those of external agencies while saving your clients and your parent organization money, and those cost savings can be substantial!
Terence and Katie describe a three-pronged strategy for addressing this challenge:
1. Provide structured account management
2. Attract talented people
3. Employ efficient processes
1. Provide Structured Account Management
As the main point of contact, Terence works with clients to establish reasonable time frames, estimate costs, and determine resource requirements. While clients normally work with a general timeline, Terence needs to balance their needs with his group’s capacity.
“Depending on the studio schedule, I can offer a slightly different timing for the project to the client and see if they have some flexibility built into their timeline. If I can’t fit their project in within their time frame, I tell them that I can’t commit to it,” he says.
Fortunately, he doesn’t have to turn away people too frequently. “I’ve noticed that there is a percentage of projects that fail to start on time, and there are often unexpected breaks between project phases. That usually allows me to book more projects than I would normally take on.”
To ensure that the goals he’s set are met, every project has a project manager responsible for tracking budgets and progress toward final deliverables.
At BMS, Katie works closely with the entire team, including Account Management and Traffic, to monitor and manage project costs and see that things move ahead on schedule.
Because her group handles many projects simultaneously, resources sometimes need to be reallocated on the fly. To facilitate prioritization, Katie says, “We work from daily hot lists outlining expected deliverables for the day. ‘Orange’ items are priority and should take precedence over all other work.”
The real key to managing client expectations is communication, Katie says. “As simplistic as it sounds, communication is everything. When we have a concern that we may not meet a deadline, we communicate that immediately and look for alternate solutions. We also let the client know when we feel a component piece may be getting close to going over budget due to numerous round changes or other internal/external variables.”
2. Attract Talented People
To provide clients with agency-quality work, you have to attract and retain experienced design professionals who can operate at that level. Aside from maintaining compensation levels that are comparable to outside agencies and assigning people projects that allow them to grow and develop their skills, Terence focuses on cultivating a work environment that is collaborative and flexible.
“I have a reputation as a designer’s manager and try to make the studio a fun place to work,” he says. “My staff get along well with each other and support each other as part of a team. As important, they have great relationships with the Colgate Packaging managers, who have a lot of access to the studio.”
For her part, Katie says that the studio at BMS tends to “employ seasoned professionals, hired from big agencies who become an extension of our clients’ brand teams.”
While the fact that the studio is structured like an agency helps make it attractive, the real draw is the company’s brand. “Our company’s reputation in the pharmaceutical industry speaks for itself,” Katie says. “We work for an organization where integrity is paramount. That commitment is carried throughout the corporation in the work environment, benefits, and life balance it strives to provide its employees. Top design talent is naturally attracted to that quality.”
3. Employ Efficient Processes
In order to provide the cost savings their clients expect, in-house groups need to be efficient. While putting rational and effective processes in place is a start, benefits can be realized only if the processes are followed.
To make sure that happens at Colgate, Terence enlists the involvement of his entire team. “Our staff creates our processes and all have a stake in following them. We self-police and train new designers in our processes.”
The drive for efficiency extends beyond project plans and spreadsheets to the practice of design itself. “We buy all photography and illustration for possible reuse in the future, and we archive the work once the project is completed. Furthermore, when designing, we never crop retouched images and always work with high dpi images in case we need larger art in the future.”
At BMS, Katie and the other studio managers called on consultants (Aquent, as it turns out) to formalize standard operating procedures (SOPs). To make sure they are aligned with reality on the ground, Katie says, “we review those SOPs quarterly to see if our work flow has changed in any respect and to search for any holes in the process.”
Ultimately, it’s the individuals following the SOPs who need to make them work. To that end, Katie cultivates a sense of personal responsibility in her designers. “We have charged each of our designers to act as their own project managers in some respect: troubleshooting potential production issues, investigating cost-effective design alternatives, etc. We really encourage ownership of a piece, whether it is a full-blown campaign or a repurposed appointment card.”
The bottom line is this: In-house creative studios can be a great way to save money. But cost savings are meaningless if they come at the expense of quality. If, however, your in-house group can provide great customer service, attract talented design professionals, and consistently employ efficient processes, your organization will enjoy the best of both worlds: agency-quality work at in-house prices.